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Vol. 19 [1] May 2011

Between the Keys logo

The Official Newsletter of the Materials Writers, a JALT Special Interest Group

Views of the path from proposal to publication:

Authors respond


Curtis Kelly

Kansai University

Responses to Curtis Kelly's article "Kelly's Rule of Thumb for Getting Published" (this issue)

At JALT 2009, the Materials Writers SIG was delighted to obtain the services of some established materials writers to appear at the MW SIG forum entitled: "Views of the path from proposal to publication". After the forum, I approached the presenters and asked if they would write follow-up articles for BtK based on their presentations. Please find these articles inside this edition.

Keen to gauge reaction of his local audience before publication, Curtis Kelly e-mailed his article to a number of materials writers and colleagues. What followed was a fascinating back-and-forth of insightful opinions and anecdotes relating to a variety of forays into materials publishing, detailing personal triumphs and frustrations from a number of professionals in the field of ELT. What follows is a selection of the correspondence which makes for fascinating reading for anyone considering entering the fray of commercial materials writing. Many thanks go to all contributors.

'This is really good, Curtis. I think you've caught the soul of what we do (and I do think good books do have a soul)'(Marc Helgesen). 'You've offered nice clear, common sense, realistic, tell-it-like-it-is stuff! And close to my experiences too--especially about not getting rich from writing.' (Steve Gershon)

Following these comments many writers began adding their own (hi)stories and feelings about the their experiences and the writing process as a whole.

Steve continues:

When we are writing it is a major time, energy (and stress!) commitment--especially as most of us are not in the (enviable?) position of being able to write 'full-time'. For most of the authors I know, writing textbooks is done on top of a full-time teaching job and so when we are in the midst of a project or conference/book fair promotion tour, we are having to cram in the writing late at night, on weekends and during school vacation time. Moreover, in the end, what we have is a 'product' that must see the light of day in the marketplace. The most tangible indication of the worth or value of our 'product', whether we like it or not, is how well it sells, in other words, our royalty statement. Rightly or wrongly, no matter how much my fellow ELT teachers and/or authors might tell me a book I have written is good, unless the figures on my royalty statement are sufficiently satisfying (whatever that means!), I myself have difficulty believing it is good, or at least that it was worth the time and effort I spent on it. (Steve Gershon)

Curtis' reply to Steve:

Hi Steve, But of course we slog away selflessly writing our materials, not for the royalties or travel perks, but rather for the betterment of the ELT profession.... uh, don't we?

I think you touched a nerve in all of us with that one: why we do it. I find this conflict in myself that reminds me of how a Harvard historian once described the American character in regard to international politics: A combination of the benevolent angel mother and shrewd horse trader. On one hand, I feel like I am doing this for students and the money or recognition don't matter. And yet, every time I get a royalty check I feel like I've been slightly exploited (but just slightly) for the sake of someone else's weal. I then think I'll have to fight harder next time, for all authors, to get a more just due.

I can't really figure out where exactly I'm at. It is like looking at the vase-or-face illusion. You can see one or the other at one time, but not both. Likewise, I can't seem to get both frames of thinking about "why I do it" in mind at the same time. Then again, I wonder if LM writing was a highly profitable activity all the time, if just one of these modes of thinking would emerge and dominate. Part of the impetus to think we're doing it for the general good might because if we didn't, our horse trader side would make us quit this otherwise enjoyable endeavour.

Steve Gershon, Peter Viney and others then added to the discussion with some more insights into the world of publisher contracts and constraints:

A couple of contractual points that I don't remember being mentioned thus far are the 'no-compete' clause and 'next book' commitment. I have asked publishers to specifically define the meaning of 'no-compete', in terms of what exactly competes with what, but I have never managed to get much useable clarity out of them. I was also 'offered' by one publisher the 'next book' commitment, but when I questioned them about it, I discovered that it was totally one-sided in that the publisher would be binding me to submit my next proposal to them first, but they would still have the right to reject it. When I asked my editor, in all sincerity, how that arrangement could possibly benefit me in any way, she basically admitted that it wouldn't. Interesting! (Steve Gershon)

re: the publisher demanding right of first refusal on your next manuscript, I heard a great strategy from Catherine Walter: when a publisher says that, she says, "…and did I mention I also write poetry?" :) (Marc Helgesen)

The first time I was offered the next book commitment I was highly flattered and signed it. Then I spoke to the Society of Authors and have declined to sign it ever since and OUP, Macmillan, Penguin have just struck it out without a murmur. They all put it in, they all expect to strike it out and they will. It's almost a joke that it's still in there. The last one I signed was in 1978. We did an ELT Authors day in the UK years ago, and Michael Swan made the poetry comment too. BTW, every publisher was there and heard him, and ones I've struck out since don't say "next work" but "next work on the same subject."(Peter Viney)

The non-compete clause is a sticky one. A previous co-author tried to prevent Karen and me from publishing (new textbook B) on the grounds that (a) we were in a partnership over (previous textbook A) and (b) we were co-signatories to a contract with a non-compete clause with publisher X. Publisher X delayed publication until it was resolved, losing a full and crucial season in the marketplace, with our biggest market, Spain, having to cancel a long promo tour. I went to one lawyer who said we'd lost before we had started, under the 1888 partnership act. He suggested we offer a considerable share of the new book. Then a musician friend sent me to a music lawyer in London who resolved everything very fast, at no loss whatsoever to us (apart from his very fair fee). Non-competition is very, very hard to prove, but more importantly if you are a full-time author, or earn a share of your living by writing part-time, the non-competition clause is "restraint of trade" and we were told it could only be enforced if you were writing exactly the same number of units for an identical market in an identical style (and even that is dubious). They cannot stop you exercising your trade, which he defined as "ELT course book authors specializing at the lower levels". Publisher X's lawyers were persuaded. At the meeting, the music industry lawyer said (in a strong London accent) "We have just two words for (the co-author) on this matter. The second one is "off."'(Peter Viney)

Ah, the non-compete clause. A pet peeve of mine! The problem I've had isn't so much that Publisher A will want to sue you when you write for Publisher B, but rather that Publisher B won't take you on in the first place if your clause with Publisher A is too sweeping. And yes, that has been an issue for me on more than one project. I've had some luck getting these clauses changed or at least restricted. I found it really helped to suggest alternative wording, rather than just saying "I don't like this clause." I prefer something like "Will not publish a book-length work designed for the x, y, z market on the subject of a treated in a b way for a period of 3 years from the date of this contract." Or something like that.

As one experience showed me, even within the same company you can get different contracts; and ultimately it comes down to how badly they want you. In the case of the one that wouldn't change the clause, the deal was, you sign it and do the book--or you don't sign it, regrets and all that and we'll get someone else. Those of us who also edit need to be careful not to sign "publish or cause to be published," which is standard wording for some publishers. I don't think publishers are "out to get" authors, not at all, but their contracts aren't necessarily out to be the most author-friendly, either and your editor that you have a perfectly fine relationship with is probably not the person who wrote the contract language anyway. (Dorothy Zemach)

I've never worried about the non-competition because I always figured (a) I would be somehow different enough from what I had done earlier so it could be defined differently and (b) I wouldn't want to compete with myself anyway.  But I tend to stay with the same publisher (though this wasn't always the case) and I'm happy there so this hasn't been an issue. (Marc Helgesen)

Curtis then steered the topic to royalty payments:

I am quite enjoying this discussion, so now I'll bring out the clause that REALLY scares me in a contract. Most publishers have some clause saying that if a future edition is done, the royalty figure gets changed. Some contracts include something to the effect that this is true 'if the author cannot or will not do the revision', but I'm not sure all do. Some contracts say how much of the royalty can be given to the revision authors, and some are vague. The one that does says up to 25% of the original rate can be reassigned.

None of us are that young so we might become incompetent or someone's fond memory at any time. Now, let's say your book is a hit and has a long shelf-life, maybe not quite like the song "Happy Birthday," but enough to go through a few editions. After all, with national curricula changing, new printing techniques, etc. it might become normal for a book to have a new edition every five years. It is quite possible then, that your greatest work, the book your name is on and is loved by many, gets you little or maybe even nothing, even though your book sells hundreds of thousands of copies per year. Worse, your impoverished family gets nothing because your share was given away to revising editors. Therefore, I asked for wording like "author or author's estate" in regard to ownership of the rights and royalties to never be reduced below 25% (or 50%), no matter how many times it is revised. (Curtis Kelly)

The final word goes to Peter Viney and his summary of changes in the industry that he has witnessed.

When I started writing around 1977, standard royalty rate for British publishers was 10% of published price (the price printed on the cover, which back then it still was). About a year into Book A, publisher X approached us and said that shifting market conditions meant they couldn't pay 10% of the published price anymore (1980?) and were asking authors to switch voluntarily to 15% of net receipts, i.e. the money they got from distributors. Let's do the maths. Cover price is £10. 10% of receipts is £1. The "average discount" we were told was one-third, so the publisher received £6.66. 15% is 99.9p. My accountant explained that really the equivalent was 16.6% of receipts. I can't follow quite why. He worked in it and he knew. We agreed to the change. Allegedly the authors of publisher X's main course book "Book B" declined to switch. Within two years Book A was replacing Book B everywhere. Yes, it IS a better book, but I'm not daft enough to think that this was the only reason. It is true that conditions had changed to a point where they had to have flexibility in negotiating deals, which a fixed royalty hampered. MORAL: Don't overplay your hand. They will promote what they make most money on. I have been told many times that local offices and reps don't know royalty rates and promotions departments are blind to them. Yeah, right.

OK, move forward ten years. Major distributors are now taking 40%. Very few copies are going straight to small independent outlets (at say 25% discounts). Let's ignore the fact that the publishers may co-own the local offices they're discounting to, so effectively are discounting to themselves. Are you being screwed on this? Definitely. Can you do anything about it? Not a chance. Your 15% of receipts is now 90p, but you're not complaining. It's not a lot (and anyway, cover price inflation has concealed it). Next move. By the late 80s, publishers introduce a "rising ladder" so "authors share the risk." Typically this was 10% of receipts on 1-20,000 copies. 12.5% on 20,001 to 40,000, 15% thereafter. This meant that authors were stumping up a share of the initiation costs. But then Amazon and so on are taking 50% discounts. So your £10 book is worth 10% of £5 unless it becomes a major hit. Your share is now 50p.

Move on ten years more. Many authors ask me for advice and the deals they're being offered are 7.5% rising to 10% rising to 12% IF THEY ARE VERY, VERY LUCKY. Your share of the £10 book is effectively down to 37.5p as very few ever get past rung one on the ladder. I can assure you from experience that titles at higher rates are shifted aside in favour of ones at lower rates. Now, here in 2010, as Curtis points out, 70% discounts are not unknown in some markets. Authors tell me recently of being offered 5% or less. Your £10 book is now worth 15p.

With regard major projects and advances, if the publisher pays a substantial advance, enough to keep you writing full-time for a year or two, the ball is squarely in their court. You are no longer "sharing the risk" of the venture with your time investment and they will drop royalties significantly from the figures above. This is fair, I think. The advance will be deducted from the royalties. There is only one direction in royalties and it is downward. Suppliers like Amazon demand huge discounts if your books are available "in 24 hours". In the last four or five years, publishers have become increasingly arrogant in dealings with authors … not just me, but all the authors I speak to. I don't think the author has the leverage of twenty years ago or will again. I had lunch with two well-known author friends. We agreed that we had seen the best years of ELT authorship and that they were over. (Peter Viney)

The contributors

Steven Gershon has taught in Japan for 23 years and is a professor at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo. He presents frequently at conferences and has written many course books, including New English Upgrade and Gear Up (Macmillan), Sound Bytes and On the Go (Pearson), and Present Yourself (Cambridge). Steven spent the 2009-2010 academic year on sabbatical in the Philippines conducting research on English language education as a visiting scholar at Ateneo de Manila University.

Marc Helgesen, Professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, Sendai and Adjunct Professor at Teachers College Columbia University MA TESOL Program, Japan Campus is author of many books for Pearson Longman including English Firsthand which is Longman Asia's best selling adult course.

Curtis Kelly (EDD), a professor at Kansai University. He coauthored Significant Scribbles (Pearson-Longman), The Snoop Detective School Conversation Book (Macmillan), Surechigai 100 (Sanseido), two chapters in an Oxford book on Japanese colleges, the Writing from Within series (Cambridge), Active Skills for Communication (Cengage), and a bunch of others.

Peter Viney is the co-author of the Streamline English series. Peter and Karen Viney have co-authored many series including Grapevine, Main Street, Handshake and IN English. They were pioneering ELT video authors and have written thirteen video series and adapted the Wallace & Gromit animations for ELT. Peter was also co-series editor of the Storylines series of graded readers. His latest book is Fast Track to Reading (Garnet Education). His blog is at:

Dorothy E. Zemach is an ESL materials writer, editor, and teacher trainer from Oregon. She is a frequent plenary presenter at conferences, a columnist for TESOL's Essential Teacher magazine, and has written over 15 ESL textbooks, including Sentence Writing, Paragraph Writing, Success With College Writing, and Get Ready For Business 1 and 2 (Macmillan), Writers at Work: The Essay (Cambridge University Press), and Building Academic Reading Skills 1 and 2 (University of Michigan Press). Current interests include the teaching of writing, EAP, business English, testing, and humour in ESL materials and the profession.